Quincy McMichael

Getting Well

Fuck the dark web, I thought as I slid one hand under my pillow and curled into the familiar warmth of my comforter. With eyes wide in the steady dark of my early-morning living room, I hoped that the gentle heft of the down above would temper the anxious adrenaline that threatened to keep sleep from me. I rolled onto my back, feeling the lumpy cushions shift beneath me.

I willed my eyes to close, feeling suspended between the restless shifts and squeaks of the futon bed in the guest room to my right, where my father slept, and the ragged pattern of breath-silence-gasp-snore in the other room—my bedroom. There, Joe wheezed his way through another opioid nightmare: thick, dry tongue pasted to the roof of his mouth; weak, moist lungs laboring for their share of fresh air against the drugs’ effect. As I lay on the couch, just ten feet away, I felt worried—and so tired. Any indication of sleep from Joe’s direction, strained or not, was welcome. In just four short days, his addiction had taken our whole household, including my visiting father, hostage. We were all beyond the point of exhaustion, just waiting for the simmer to break into a boil.

Late September, just six weeks prior, had marked the second anniversary of my relationship with Joe—if the diffuse push-and-pull of our close-quarters habitation could still qualify as intentional intimacy. By that point, when we had been bumping along the rocky bottom of his addiction for well over a year, Joe rolled his ugly red truck into a fog of trees while on the way to see his work "friend" and drug dealer. Moments before, he had called to let me know he was almost at Danny’s house and would be driving home from North Carolina later that night. We said goodbye, and he nodded out at the wheel, less than a mile from his destination.

Absent a conscious driver, his newly acquired, red F-150 dodged off the asphalt and headlong into a large tree before rolling deeper into the woods at the roadside. The impact offered Joe the jostle he needed, and he came to, bleeding and bruised, and fought his way through broken glass and out of his totaled truck. Danny came to retrieve him from the scene of the wreck, and Joe called me to ask if I would come get him the coming day. Of course I would.

Early the next morning, which was a Saturday, I packed his old Camry with the requisite supplies for my usual farmers’ market booth and drove to town. I pasted a smile on my face as regular customers requested eggs, bright green bundles of herbs, bacon, and preserves. My mind raced through worst-case scenarios while I educated newbies about pastured pork and offered samples of kombucha. As soon as the market closed, I rushed to load coolers and chalkboards before speeding, fretful and consumed, toward North Carolina.

We met at a gas station on the side of the highway. Joe climbed out of the back of a busted Honda and collapsed into the passenger seat of his own scrappy Camry. He was unrecognizable: wearing ill-fitting borrowed clothes that permeated the car with stale smoke, his face crusted with blood and battered from the wreck. No one, including him, had made any effort to doctor his wounds, or even wash the blood from his face. Joe’s eyes were so swollen that I could not see his pupils, but I had no doubt that they were drawn down as tight as pins under his purple lids. As soon as I pulled onto the highway, Joe was asleep.

When we arrived home five hours later, he showered and then submitted to an extended session of wound care. I removed shards of glass from his face and arms. I cleaned dried blood from his scalp and temple. I dressed deep wounds on both wrists, as well as the bridge of his nose, which had been flattened by the same impact that had blackened both of his eyes.

Not until the next day, when the drugs began to dwindle, did Joe seem to realize that he was stuck at home—no job, no truck in which to haul his tools even if he could find a new gig—staring down the barrel of the last paycheck in his bank account. After imbibing a toxic combination of loss, failure, and resentment, he again adjusted his schedule, slowly, so that my nighttime was his daytime and his daytime my nighttime. I would fall asleep to the flicker of his computer screen in the living room, as he watched movies and searched the dark web for mail-order poison.

Again, the drugs arrived, in plain packages containing cheap plastic doodads and chintzy toys. I had become accustomed to these deliveries, though I still worried that, since Joe was using my address to receive the drugs, I could be found liable for his dark-web indiscretions. Sometimes, the envelopes came Airmail from China, marked with characters as obscure to me as the contents they held. I could always tell when Joe was waiting for a delivery. He became extra-attentive to the rural route mail schedule, setting his alarm for 11:30 a.m. so he could roust himself and hustle down the road to wait, slouched in his Camry, at the postbox.

Only later, after the packaging had been torn open and his treasure claimed, would I find mini frisbees and tiny stuffed animals around the house.

“What is this?” I had asked, the first time, holding a molded plastic monkey with a bead-and-labyrinth puzzle affixed to its belly.

“Just some junk that came in the mail,” replied Joe. And, later—once he was feeling entirely at ease, pleased with the effect, safe in its embrace—he explained to me how the clever dark-web dealers would use toys or other doodads to conceal their true, deadly cargo.

I started finding Joe slumped against the wall in the bathroom, weakened by his recent injection, breath laboring or, increasingly often, entirely stalled. The pallor of his face was not only unhealthy, but ghostly. I would bend and hoist him—my forearms sliding under his armpits, hands linked just below the faded compass tattoo on his bare and sallow chest—and haul his languid body upright. More than once, I saw our sickening struggle reflected in triptych by the medicine cabinet glass: me, sun-bronzed and work-hardened, with my strong shoulders bearing forward the weight of his limp, greyish body, messy head tucked forward, glasses askew.

Often, after he came back to life, we would talk about addiction. On occasion, I shared a bit about my own experience with deep powerlessness and the recovery borne from that pain. He lay in my arms and sobbed through the depths of withdrawal, confessing his deepest pains and insecurities. I, ever-hopeful and empathetic as only someone who knows the same suffering can be, bathed his forehead with cool washcloths and promised him that he would make it through. Against my better judgement, on trips to town, I bought bottles and bottles of off-brand Loperamide—little blue pills that Joe consumed by the hundreds, hoping to ease the pain of withdrawal.

This over-the-counter opioid receptor agonist, which is sold as an antidiarrheal, blocks the opioid receptors in the gut, therefore slowing down the movement of the large intestine and easing diarrhea. Joe, however, did not have severe diarrhea. When the drugs ran out, he used Loperamide to minimize the painful physical consequences of his withdrawal. When taken by the pill, as recommended, Loperamide does not cross the blood-brain barrier. But, for an addict desperate enough to take a hundred pills at once—and already unconcerned about liver damage and severe constipation—the medication can ease symptoms of withdrawal.

Joe would use until the heroin—or, later, fentanyl or carfentanil—ran out, and then, if his resupply had not arrived in time, which was the norm, he would quaff handfuls of the tiny blue pills and lie, shivering, under heaps of blankets in our bed. After he had totaled his truck, this cycle took on an even bleaker hue, because there was no possibility of work—to which he tied his hope—on the horizon. Once his bank balance had dwindled to the point where he felt he had no other choice, Joe devised a plan to order two hundred “bars” of Xanax through the mail, with the idea to avert the anxious paralysis that had always yanked him back off the wagon.

One night, as I brushed my hair before bed, I sat with him in the dim living room as he peered at the screen of his laptop, poring over pictures of powders and pills. By the time I had cleaned my teeth, he had transferred the last of his savings via Bitcoin to an unknown online drug dealer for the Xanax and just a little more fentanyl. He flinched, ears cushioned with headphones, and barely looked up from his movie when I touched his shoulder to say goodnight.

In the two years since Joe first relapsed—after first leaving the farm to weld at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard—I had been careful to shield those close to me from the uncomfortable reality of his drug habit. I did not share about what Joe was doing unless necessary: only in situations of life or death, whether his or mine.

I did not discuss Joe’s drug use at my recovery meetings; I did not tell either of my parents, with whom I spoke often, and intimately. Still, I believed—and still do—that holding secrets will keep me sick. Thus, I shared everything, without reservation, with my sober sponsor—a woman with whom I had been practicing rigorous honesty since I arrived in West Virginia six years before. She heard my fears about living life one day at a time, unsure about whether the money for pig feed would appear; she witnessed the tragic aftermath of my obsession and anger, heard me report from the battlefield of my flailing, fearful temper.

Even today, she never pushes me toward one decision or another; she reminds me that mixed motives are a human trait, encourages me to turn inward, to get quiet, to ask when I need direction. At the time, I had enough recovery to know that I could not fix Joe, but I was not yet recovered enough to release the compulsion to stick with an impossible situation to the bitter end. Maybe I thought that pain makes grit. Maybe I was hoping for some overdue appreciation once the situation improved. Maybe I was unsure who I would be without the challenge, or afraid of what others would think of me if I gave up.

When, during those painful years with Joe, I offered my sponsor my consequent confession: that I knew I could not rise to new heights—human, spiritual, or otherwise—while yoked to his sinking anchor, I imagined her gentle smile on the other end of the phone line. “If that is your path, you will know when you are ready,” she said. I could tell that she was right. Once again, I was not ready to let go, not yet.

As Joe scraped along that ragged bottom, my desperation and discomfort with being his solitary witness intensified. After he totaled his truck—and himself—in North Carolina, I began talking, tentatively at first, with his mother, a kind, faithful woman with a bottomless well of love for her only son. Mary and I had—and still have—a good rapport. During those lean years, I turned toward our burgeoning relationship while conversations with my own mother took on a prickly, suspicious tone—her, worried, trying to determine how to safeguard me from whatever was going on in my home; me, fearful that Joe’s secret (and my obsession with keeping it) was leaking poison into my other relationships. But I knew that Mary’s loyalty to her son exceeded even my own, and I began to offer her glimpses of what was happening, as well as to share bits of the hope that my own recovery afforded me.

Still, I withheld the truth from both of my parents. While Joe was detoxing—a wretched state that is impossible to hide—I excused his absences as “sickness,” which was both achingly true and patently dishonest. My mother lived only an hour from the farm, so she witnessed his odd behavior on occasion; over time, she became increasingly concerned, even asking me outright if Joe had a drug problem, but I refused to talk. My father, who harbored suspicions of his own, arrived in early November, having driven down from Maine in his trusty, rusty traveling van with Bros Inc. emblazoned on the side. This time, diversion from the issue at hand would become impossible.

That November, Dad and I were working together each day to enclose the "biotunnel"—a greenhouse-like structure that he had helped me install that Spring—preparing and securing plastic sheeting that would encase the outside, creating the desired warming effect, and constructing wooden walls to complete the ends and foundation before true cold set in for the Winter.

My father and I have always been close, and I knew that my refusal to share the pain of what was happening in my home hurt him as well. Dad—as he would say—was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. As soon as he arrived on the farm, he knew something was up.

On his first morning there, Dad and I rose early—I heard him stirring just after dawn and forced myself upright and into the kitchen, leaving Joe’s quiet form in the bed next to me. We drank our coffee and ate a quick but filling breakfast of eggs, bacon, and fried apples.

“Where’s the boy?” Dad asked, with a wry eyebrow.

“Still sleeping,” I replied. “He has his days and nights mixed up; he just fell asleep.”

Dad was silent as he picked up his coffee cup. I could hear him thinking: his sleep schedule is not the only thing that’s screwed up, but he stood, leaning hard on the corner of the kitchen table, and turned toward the counter to pour another cup.

“Q-ie,” he began, as he swirled his cup: “This scene just isn’t right. You know it.”

I knew. Dad was right. And I also knew that I could not keep the truth from my father any longer, especially not with him living in the household where Joe’s habit festered. We finished our coffee, I left the breakfast dishes in the sink, and Dad and I hiked up the hill to begin our work on the biotunnel. Once the planning had been completed, and we were working side by side, I let go. What had my silence been protecting, anyway? Not Joe, but his addiction.

“He’s using, Dad. Heroin. Not really heroin, but fentanyl, which is worse—like a hundred times worse. He tries to stop, and then starts again—the same old story. I keep finding him half-dead, overdosed, and bringing him back to life. I am so tired of the whole sick mess.”

Between Joe’s vampiric schedule and my father’s propensity for dedicated work in the morning and increasingly grumpier work as the day progressed—who can blame him, he has been retired from carpentry for years—any nascent compatibility between them vanished. Dad and I stayed on track with our usual work schedule. Joe lived day and night on his side of our wide bed, curtains drawn, in the grungy throes of withdrawal. Once the fentanyl resupply arrived, Joe would wander up the hill in late afternoon, dressed to work but too high to be trusted on a ladder. The chasm between the two men only grew, though Joe remained blissfully unaware of the increasing frustration and danger his addiction was causing.

From my perch on the ladder, I heard the car start. I turned just in time to see Joe close the door of his silver Camry and race off, bumping his way up the road. At first, I was surprised to see him awake—I had not seen him vertical before midafternoon in weeks—but then I realized that today should be delivery day: carfentanil, and perhaps his Xanax bars, too. The time was just past noon, and he was headed, no doubt, for the mailbox at the end of our road.

As the Camry sped out of view, leaving a slow-to-dissipate trail of dust among the trees, Dad and I exchanged raised eyebrows and sad smiles. After the requisite ten minutes had passed, and then another five, I realized that Joe had stopped along the road to "get well," unable to resist using the drug until he made it back to our bedroom, his personal den of iniquity and darkness.

I saw him, then, in my mind. His Camry, pitted with the scars of multiple close calls, yanked off the narrow dirt road, thick trees all around, bearing witness to the immediacy of his need.

Joe fumbles in the low side pocket of his door for a needle but finds only papers and sticky wrappers from the KIND bars he favors. Frustrated, he flips open the center console and riffles through the contents, hurriedly looking for the bright orange cap of the syringe he seeks, symbolic of the relief he needs. Not finding anything—I was in the habit of removing any paraphernalia from his vehicle before I drove it—he tears open the smaller package on his lap, feeling through the cheap fabric of a Hello Kitty mitten for the thin lump his heart so desires. In a hurry, because now he needs to get home to fix himself a shot, Joe taps the bag so the fine, white powder settles to the bottom. He cracks open the tiny zipper at the top and shakes an imperceptible dot of the powerful drug onto the folded cardboard in which it arrived. One quick snort, and his perceived pain eases even before the fentanyl can make contact with the inside of his nostril. Joe throws the car into gear and guns the engine toward home, toward safety—toward more.

Once the opioid addict has begun the process of withdrawal, “getting well” becomes the primary goal. No longer do thoughts of euphoria play across the landscape of the mind, nor does the brain fiddle with the math required to catch the perfect nod. Instead, antithetically, the junkie seeks only a return to the drug that will bring “wellness,” even though true wellness is not to be found in chemical form. Thus, the powerful obsessive-compulsive pattern perpetuates.

In his drug-addled state, Joe began rising from a near-comatose sleep and lighting every gas burner in the kitchen before retiring, again, to bed. Once, Dad and I found a scorched pan alight when we returned for lunch. After that, every time we left the house for the biotunnel, we carried with us the knobs from the gas stove, and Joe’s car keys. I removed the knives from the kitchen and hid my pistol. Somehow, Joe still lit the stove and burned more food, sending me running to the house in a panic when I smelled smoke, so we closed the gas line after that.

At eight-thirty in the morning, my arms are brimming with the flotsam of fear: a canvas satchel, packed with the small store of ammunition I usually keep secreted in my bedroom, the paring knife and long, serrated bread knife I had used to prepare our breakfast, four of the five plastic burner knobs from the kitchen stove.

“There’s no way he’s going to hurt himself, Dad—or us—I think it’s fine to leave the knives in the kitchen—"

“And the knobs on the stove? The frigging rascal just about burned the house down yesterday, Q-ie, we can’t—”

“—just because he fell asleep—” I interjected.

“—'cause he’s high as hell! We don’t know what he is capable of right now. He’s not a bad guy. Pretty fuckin’ lazy, if you ask me, but who knows what he’ll do—”

“—but, I’ll—” I tried to protest, not knowing what to offer.

“Do you like your life—your house—me—or not?” Dad asked, finishing the conversation. He turned off the burner as the stovetop percolator spat, pulled the plastic knob from the front of the stove and added it to the pile of contraband in my arms. “Let’s get out there and see about that end wall.”

I have asked myself why my father did not confront Joe about his erratic, dangerous behavior. I also asked Dad, but he still cannot talk about this time period without clouds of frustration eclipsing his ability to recollect. My father—whose own father, and then his only, older, brother, killed themselves as the result of their alcoholism—carries an immense amount of trauma around addiction. He has lost dear friends to the disease; he watched both of his children swirl around the drain for years. Given this, perhaps he recognized in Joe the irreparable actions of a sick man and chose to let him be. But I wonder if, at that point, Dad only had enough energy to keep working until the biotunnel project was done. Maybe, after long weeks of work, he was just tired and ready to go home.

On the evening before my father was to return to Maine, the biotunnel was, at long last, complete. Dad washed dishes while I buzzed from cutting board to stovetop, bearing sliced onions and cabbage for the skillet, cooking our final supper. We were exhausted after a long day of climbing ladders and preventing Joe from burning down the house.

In contrast, Joe, who had arisen from his dank cave in the bedroom to join us at the dinner table, was ready for action. He had spoken with his parents, and his behavior quickly became more erratic than I had ever seen before. Joe would disappear into the bathroom for long blocks of time, even though I had removed every drug and scrap of paraphernalia I could find. He would emerge, raving nonsensically, and collapse into the bed. All night, Joe vacillated between invincibility and devastation. I prayed for rest as he raced and raged. At last, Joe slipped into relative silence, somewhere in the darkness of our bedroom. I heard Dad’s breath slow into a light snore. When I finally fell asleep—just hours before dawn—I slept as if in debt to the stillness, blind to what the morning might bring.